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Declining sperm counts: Nature’s answer to overpopulation?

Declining sperm counts: Nature’s answer to overpopulation?

Epidemiologist Shanna Swan projects that on current trends sperm counts will reach zero by 2045. That shocking conclusion comes from a new book by Swan and her colleague Stacey Colino. Is this nature’s way of bringing human population under control? (More on that later.)

In a 2017 study Swan and colleagues looked at “244 estimates of SC [sperm concentration] and TSC [total sperm count] from 185 studies of 42,935 men who provided semen samples in 1973–2011” in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Men elsewhere may fare better, but the causes of this trend suggest that it is worldwide.

Swan told The Guardian that she blames so-called “‘everywhere chemicals’, found in plastics, cosmetics and pesticides, that affect endocrines such as phthalates and bisphenol-A.” She also pointed to unhealthy lifestyle choices including use of tobacco and marijuana and to rising obesity. Obesity itself has been linked to increasing human endocrine disruption from these same chemicals.

In fact, Swan’s warning is not new even though her study makes it more urgent. The issue of endocrine disruption from toxic chemicals burst into public view in 1996 with the publication of Our Stolen Future which detailed the research on endocrine disrupting chemicals for a lay audience.

There have been some minor victories. Bisphenol-A has been largely removed from food containers voluntarily by food processors. But it is still found in many products and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still claims it is “safe.”

I asked at the beginning of this piece whether declining sperm counts is nature’s way of limiting human population. The current trend would not just reduce population, but lead to extinction within a century. It is as if the 2006 film Children of Men has been remade with a slightly different plot line.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

 

Demateralizing the economy isn’t happening (Hint: All that material is actually hiding in plain sight)

Demateralizing the economy isn’t happening (Hint: All that material is actually hiding in plain sight)

If you are trying to prove something is true and certain facts get in the way, it’s almost always useful to exclude them. This is apparently what technology cheerleader Andrew McAfee has done in his recent book More from Less, which claims that advanced economies have been dematerializing for something like the last 40 years. Simply put, those economies are producing more output with little or no increase in physical resources.

There’s just one little problem as anthropologist Jason Hickel points out in his review of More from Less: McAfee forgot to count the physical resources used in making products imported from other countries by all those advanced economies. McAfee only counts those resources extracted within the boundaries of the advanced countries.

I am highlighting Hickel’s piece not so much as a book review. There are dozens of books making similar ridiculous claims that are contradicted by the facts. I am highlighting the piece because Hickel provides perhaps the clearest, most concise refutation of the nonsense that McAfee and others like him are peddling.

Let me touch on the high points though I encourage you to read the full article:

  1. “There has been zero dematerialization. No green growth. It was all an illusion of accounting.”
  2. Global resource use has actually been accelerating faster than growth in the global economy. We are becoming more resource-intensive, not less.
  3. Ecologists believe human societies are 90 percent over any sustainable rate of resource consumption.
  4. The economy can’t become infinitely more efficient. There are limits on how much efficiency can be taken out of any process as each increment of efficiency in resource use is more costly to implement.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The clickbait future of news and our crisis of consensus

The clickbait future of news and our crisis of consensus

It’s often hard to distinguish between what has come to be known as “clickbait”—which according to Dictionary.com is “a sensationalized headline or piece of text on the internet designed to entice people to follow a link to an article on another web page”—and simply a clever headline.

What irks me about true clickbait headlines is that the story often contradicts or fails to mention the claim made in the headline. Of course, if the entire story is merely fabricated or exaggerated in ways that obscure what is actually going on, that is a problem, too.

News organizations are no strangers to sensationalized headlines. In fact, the newspaper business invented an entire category for what is called clickbait, namely, tabloids. The often repeated adage that “if it bleeds, it leads” is reaffirmed on a daily basis.

(Tabloids are, of course, named after the tabloid format that many sensationalizing newspapers adopt. The most recognizable newspaper format is called broadsheet which is used by major daily papers around the world. For a very short explanation of newspaper sizes, you can click here.)

Now, adult readers should generally be left to sort things out for themselves. They can learn to trust and mistrust news sources from experience and weigh the headlines and information provided accordingly. I know many people are very concerned about the kind of fantasies offered on the Internet that lead otherwise sane people to disconnect from any shared reality and even resort to violence. That is certainly a problem, and it requires an entire book to explain and respond to. I don’t plan to deal with it here.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

GameStop: Why the elites hate peer-to-peer power

GameStop: Why the elites hate peer-to-peer power

During Great Britain’s golden age of gambling, a Scot named William Cunninghame Graham—losing at cards, out of money, but not yet ready to quit for the evening—secured a loan of 1,000 pounds from a Colonel Archibald Campbell. Graham pledged as security the use of his estate to Campbell for the rest of Campbell’s lifetime should Graham be unable to repay the loan. Graham lost all the money. And thus, for a 1,000-pound loan did Graham gamble away his entire estate in one evening.

Today, a group of Wall Street hedge funds are acting like Graham on steroids in the face of a growing group of small investors who have awakened to the power of peer-to-peer communications made possible by social media. (More on peer-to-peer communications below.) In this particular case these small investors seem to be winning hand after hand by pledging much of their savings—in some cases their total life savings—to another risky but decidedly much more political proposition: Beating Wall Street hedge funds at their own game by forcing losses on them for bets the hedge funds have made against a down-on-its-luck retail chain called GameStop and other companies. The focus, however, has been on GameStop which specializes in video games and equipment which increasingly can be purchased online. Another blow to GameStop has been the ongoing pandemic which has kept people out of its retail stores.

The small investors, emboldened by an online Reddit group called WallStreetBets, have so far inflicted nearly $20 billion in losses on their arch short-selling foes as the stock price of GameStop has rocketed from about $17 a share on January 4 to $325 a share on Friday. The stock sold for under $4 a share as recently as July 31. On January 25 the stock closed at $76.79 a share. Two days later it closed at $347.51.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The latest story of toxic deceit and delay: PFAS

The latest story of toxic deceit and delay: PFAS

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS—a group of persistent toxic chemicals often referred to as “forever chemicals”—are everywhere. Don’t take my word for it. Here is a list posted on the site of the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) agency:

  • Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
  • Commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).
  • Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS.
  • Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
  • Living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time

PFAS are even found in animals in Antarctica. Here is a list of health effects again provided by the EPA:

  • Infant birth weights
  • Effects on the immune system
  • Cancer (for PFOA)
  • Thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).

PFOA and PFOS are specific kinds of PFAS. Perhaps of most interest right now because of the ongoing pandemic are the deleterious effects of these chemicals on the immune system including reducing the effectiveness of vaccines. And, perhaps the most important thing you need to know about PFAS is that scientists keep reducing their estimates of what is a safe exposure as more data accumulates.

PFAS have been around since the 1950s. So, how did these dangerous chemicals—which don’t break down in the environment—escape the notice of regulatory officials for so long? The answer is all too familiar and echoes similar trajectories for such toxic legacies as unleaded gasoline, glyphosate, chlorofluorocarbons, and bisphenol A.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

What my Linux adventure is teaching me about our possible future

What my Linux adventure is teaching me about our possible future

I am a Linux ambassador of sorts. I’ve been using the Linux computer operating system since 2013. I can still remember the light feeling I had the day I broke free of the Microsoft Windows operating system.

No more constant worries about viruses hijacking or corrupting my computer. No more outlays to pay for each upgrade. No more worries that the next upgrade will be really lousy and buggy and remain so for months or even years. And, above all, no more freezes in the middle of my work and work lost as a result.

Now eight years into my Linux adventure I am wildly satisfied with that choice. That remains the case even though my most recent upgrade did not go as planned and got stretched out over several days. But this latest upgrade has made me think hard about why I stick with Linux and what the Linux way of doing things can tell us about a possible, better future.

I think some of the principles and structures I’m seeing are found in practically every pursuit, agriculture, education, the arts, politics, and commerce. If you are growing some of your own food, you are practicing these principles and creating similar structures. If you are teaching outside existing educational systems, you are likely doing the same. If you are writing, painting, singing, dancing or somehow expressing yourself artistically, you are probably already moving toward the world that the Linux community is pioneering in its own corner. If you created a business not only to have a livelihood, but because you want to change the world, you are almost certainly on the same path.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

Solar now ‘cheapest electricity in history’: How much will it matter?

Solar now ‘cheapest electricity in history’: How much will it matter?

The International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based consortium of 30 countries, has told us in its flagship World Energy Outlook 2020 that solar-produced electricity is now the “cheapest electricity in history.”  That seems like very good news, that is, until the actual expected impact of that fact is examined more closely.

For those who are concerned about climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric generation, it is certainly good news—but not quite good enough to make a dent in fossil fuel emissions.

Setting aside any concerns about critical materials needed to make the solar revolution reach completion, it may surprise many readers of the “cheapest electricity in history” headline that growth in solar energy will likely NOT lead to a reduction of fossil fuel burning anytime soon. In fact, the IEA’s main forecast has natural gas consumption growing by 30 percent through 2040 while oil consumption levels off but does not decline. Coal use does continue to decline as a share of total energy.

With solar energy and other renewables expected to grow so much by 2040, how can this be so? The answer is that what the IEA calls non-hydro renewables (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass) will provide 80 percent of the INCREASE in expected global electricity demand. That means that the fossil fuel electricity infrastructure will continue to grow and that existing plants will remain in place rather than be supplanted by renewables.

Of course, for the part of the economy that runs on liquid fuels including transportation and many industrial processes requiring high heat, more renewable electricity doesn’t make much of a dent in fossil fuel use. Even where transportation is being electrified, the growth in internal combustion engine vehicles continues to dwarf those running on electricity…

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

The priest, the engineer and the economist

The priest, the engineer and the economist

I was exchanging economist jokes over the holiday and heard this one that seemed apropos both to our resource predicament and the seeming abundance of the holiday season:

A priest, an engineer and an economist were stranded together on a desert island. Given their location, fish seemed to be a logical source of food. So, they discussed how to get some. The priest said that the three of them should pray. The engineer said he thought a better approach would be to fashion a net from materials on the island. The priest and the engineer then turned to the economist for his input. With his hand on his chin, the economist thought for a moment and then looked up and said, “Assume a fish.”

That joke neatly summarizes the problem with the vast majority of economic thinking today. Much of that thinking rests on something called the Cobb-Douglas function which has three terms:

Total production = Labor input X Capital input

What is so obviously missing, of course, are physical resources. Hence, “assume a fish” illustrates the slight of hand which most economists perform when referring to the physical world.

In fact, most economic growth projections simply forecast a certain expected (higher) level of demand for goods and services and then assume that the physical resources to meet that demand will appear. Which reminds me of a quote I shared over Christmas dinner that comes to us from economist John Kenneth Galbraith:

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.

And, I am reminded of yet another quotation attributed to economist Herbert Stein:

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Mobility is NOT a business: Why the pandemic-induced collapse of mass transit should concern us all

Mobility is NOT a business: Why the pandemic-induced collapse of mass transit should concern us all

People have always needed to get from here to there whether by foot, by horse, by ship, by train, by car, by bus or by plane. Civilization DEPENDS on the mobility of humans and the produce they cultivate and extract from the earth. Without mobility everything would grind to a halt. Human mobility—like drinkable water, waste disposal, roads, grain storage and buildings (for government, religion, and commerce)—is a prerequisite to human civilization.

Human mobility may be aided by businesses which manufacture vehicles, motorized and not; supply concrete and asphalt for roadways, sidewalks and tarmacs; supply fuel; and build facilities that are part of the mobility infrastructure. But this is all in service to something essential to civilization, something that is the glue of civilization. Airplanes are optional to civilization. They create a certain kind of civilization. But civilization has been around, of course, for a very long time before airplanes arrived.

Governments typically organize transportation systems and then build the necessary infrastructure and purchase the vehicles or license the purchase of vehicles by others. This is how it is done because mobility is NOT optional for civilization.

Mass transit—the kind of transit in deep trouble right now because of the pandemic—is a product of cities’ dense accumulations of people. Though we identify mass transit with the modern industrial city, it has been around for as long as cities themselves. Any locale where there has been a rickshaw, livery horse or carriage for hire has mass transit—by which I mean a system of vehicles that is SHARED by unrelated persons.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Critical metals supply: Industry and government just couldn’t be that shortsighted, could they?

Critical metals supply: Industry and government just couldn’t be that shortsighted, could they?

In 2009 I had an email exchange with a reader in the computer industry in which he contended that the supply of two key metals in the electronics and solar energy industries, gallium and indium, just couldn’t be as precarious as I was claiming.

I bring this up because the European Commission put out a white paper earlier this year about the need for a plan to secure adequate supplies of critical metals including gallium and indium. This concern arises, in part, because these metals and several others are central in the manufacture of ubiquitous devices such as cellphones and renewable energy equipment such as solar cells.

In 2009 my reader made the following case which I summarized in a piece I wrote at the time:

He insists that indium simply can’t be that scarce because—get this—there is indium in billions of electronic devices including cellphones and computer screens, in fact, in nearly everything that has a flat-screen display associated with it.

This is curious logic. It says that because we are using a resource ubiquitously and at an exponentially increasing rate, it must be plentiful…

I realized later that what this computer professional actually meant was that the corporate and government planners charged with thinking about resource supply issues couldn’t possibly have made a colossal blunder which would lead to a catastrophic shortage of key metals in the electronics industry. He presumed, I think, that such an outcome was simply out of the question given the competence and intelligence of the people in his industry.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Low prices batter oil industry (and later the rest of us)

Low prices batter oil industry (and later the rest of us)

It is a sign of the times that the largest oil company in the world, Saudi Aramco, the state oil company of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, must borrow money to pay its shareholder dividend. I have written about the twice-delayed and often troubled initial public offering of the company previously (here and here).

Now it seems that the cash which the company is generating from operations is far less than the dividend payout—which leaves nothing for new drilling to replace reserves and other capital expenditures needed to keep the company going. Hence, the need to borrow.

All of this is due, in part, to low oil prices. And, the Saudis are not the only ones suffering, of course. U.S. producers, mostly those focused on high-cost shale deposits, continue to head toward bankruptcy or merge with other stronger companies. Another part of the equation is heavy debt. Naive investors kept handing over fresh capital, oblivious to the fact that the shale oil and gas industry as a whole has been free cash flow negative for years. That’s okay for a few years, but as a long-run strategy it means a company is simply consuming the capital of its investors.

So, what does this mean for the economy and society as a whole? Normally, such developments, while bad for the industry, would be interpreted as a boon for the rest of society. After all, cheap energy means cheap fuel for consumers and business owners and more money to spend on other things. It also means lower costs for everything we make and buy since all products require energy to produce.…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Ransomware attacks and biodiversity: A possible lesson from nature

Ransomware attacks and biodiversity: A possible lesson from nature

As I read about recent ransomware attacks on hospitals, I was reminded of a seemingly unremarkable event years ago when I was still using a computer with the Windows operating system. I was working with a medical doctor turned medical IT specialist. His preferred operating system—though not that of the hospitals he worked for—was the one on his Apple computer. When he loaded files from a flash drive onto his machine in my presence, I asked why he didn’t check for viruses first. He had a one-word answer: biodiversity.

He was, of course, using the metaphor of biodiversity to refer to the fact that the vast majority of computer viruses and malware targeted Windows systems at that time, something that is still true today. Very few threats targeted the Apple operating system, and because of its design the system was (and is) more resistant to such attacks.

Every student of biology—which naturally includes doctors and health care workers—ought to be aware of the advantages of biodiversity in natural systems. Biodiversity brings resilience to species and to entire ecosystems. Variations in members of a species make it more likely that some will survive to propagate. Variations across species that inhabit an ecosystem make it more likely that the system will survive as a coherent unit when some, but not all of a particular species die out.

Of course, computer networks are not biological systems (unless you include the human operators). But they suffer some of the same obvious vulnerabilities. When you look at the share of operating systems worldwide for all platforms there appears to be at least some diversity with two major systems, Android and Windows vying for first place.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Do you own your own face?

Do you own your own face?

The question of whether you own your own face may not be as clear as you might think. Companies are already buying and selling information worldwide based on facial recognition technology. In January of this year I proposed that the United States adopt a constitutional amendment which would give each person ownership of his or her information including facial likenesses and any other biometric data. Now, some U.S. senators think that those gathering your likeness into their databases should have your permission first to do so.

Those senators are not alone. In September Portland, Oregon passed a sweeping ban on facial recognition technology for both government and businesses. San Francisco, Boston and Oakland have passed bans as well, but only for governmental agencies.

Those supporting such bans have cited racial and gender biases built into the algorithms controlling the technology as a central reason for the ban. Beyond this, a California legislator who led the fight to ban such technology for use in conjunction with police body cameras—including passing recordings through facial recognition software later—found out something even more disturbing. The technology which depends on a variety of algorithms is woefully inaccurate. The legislator and 25 of his colleagues were misidentified as persons listed in a law enforcement database as having criminal records.

That suggests another question: Would it be okay to deploy facial recognition technology everywhere governments and companies would like to if that technology were, say, 99.9 percent accurate?

There are those who would say, “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you don’t have anything to worry about.” There are three problems with this statement. First, there are so many laws—traffic laws, sanitation laws such as laws against spitting in public, seatbelt laws, ordinances about conduct in public places including parks—that all of us are bound to violate some law at some time everyday.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Scavenger or thief: The line will continue to blur

Scavenger or thief: The line will continue to blur

The role of scavenger in nature is to find that which others have discarded or which no longer has life. Vultures are the best-known example of a species that lives off the dead carcasses of other animals. Many insects act as scavengers as well.

Human scavengers go by many names: junk removal—the junk man often reclaims things of value even as we pay him to take them away—recycling companies, and finally, those who out of economic necessity rummage through trash cans and pick out containers redeemable for a deposit that others leave behind.

In the human world, the more desperate the times, the more scavenging people are likely to do and the less stuff there will be to go around. That’s when scavenging may cross the line into theft.

I was struck by a piece on the damage being done to the South African railways as they have been poorly guarded and far less used in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “[P]erpetrators removed windows, lights, seats, water taps, guard rails and the entire roof of the buildings…,” according to the report. Electric cable and track are being looted as well.

The writer does say that theft has gone on for years and accelerated recently due to lack of security. As a result travelers are having to find other ways to get around as the system continues to be degraded.

Unfortunately, I believe what is happening to railways in South Africa is a preview of the not-to-distant future practically everywhere. I do not believe we are done with the current economic downturn. As the economic slump renews itself, more and more people will become desperate for cash with which to buy food and pay for shelter, if they have any. They will lay their hands on anything salable that is accessible and that taking offers minimal chance of arrest or harm.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Why am I feeling so anxious? The end of modernism arrives

Why am I feeling so anxious? The end of modernism arrives

A friend of mine quipped that it is one thing to talk about the end of modernism—as the two of us have been doing for over 25 years—and quite another to live through it. It might seem that such notions are far too abstract to account for the anxiety of our fraught times. But underneath all the disorder we see in our pandemic-plagued economic, social and political lives is the crumbling of key assumptions about what we call modernity, a period of “enlightenment” that has supposedly freed us from the past.

First, let me recount what I regard as four key assumptions of modernism—I’ve written about them before—which are being demolished every day right before our eyes with the help of an invisible virus.

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn’t matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

The next thing I need to remind you is that modernism is as much a religion as any other. In the not-too-distant past, whenever anyone raised questions about its basic tenets—directly or indirectly in one form or another—that person was quickly shushed. If the person persisted, he or she was then shamed. If shaming didn’t work, then that person was shunned or even unceremoniously ejected from the party.

Enter COVID-19.

The very first thing COVID-19 reminded us is that humans and nature are both in the same category, whatever you want to call it. (My favorite living French thinker Bruno Latour proposed the compound term “nature-culture” in his seminal book We Have Never Been Modern.)

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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